Jim Cunningham was confused when he heard talk about the new national Common Core State Academic Standards that Colorado and 44 other states have adopted.
"It was hard to make heads or tails out of what it would mean for my kids," he said.
The Common Core standards for K-12 in math and English language arts and literacy is a set of academic benchmarks that emphasize critical thinking and are designed to prepare students for college and a career in a global economy.
Cunningham delved into a subject that school boards around the country have found difficult to understand.
What he found was troubling, Cunningham says.
His two children learn in very different ways, and he had sidestepped traditional education by enrolling them in Monument Charter Academy, a charter school in Lewis-Palmer School District 38 where he says his kids thrive in innovative classrooms. Academy administrators told him that the new standards are not as rigorous as those used at their school, which for the past 15 years has been a top scorer on state achievement tests.
"The common core standards seems like a cookie cutter approach to education," Cunningham says.
It's a sentiment that is growing among some educators, parents and legislators across the state and nation, particularly those involved with charter schools that pride themselves on unique teaching and are fierce defenders of local control of schools. They worry that charters will lose their uniqueness and there will be fewer educational choices for students and parents.
The concerns over Common Core arose as the lengthy process to update Colorado standards and related assessment tests converged with the development of Common Core standards.
Proponents of the new standards and tests say they will better prepare students for college and jobs, and note that they do not mandate particular curriculum or teaching methods.
Opponents say the standards interfere with their teaching because it requires certain skills at different age levels and computer testing. Because most schools have too few computers, tests will stretch over more time and take away from instruction.
They also complain that the new standards are less rigorous and include material that shouldn't be required learning.
"It could be the death of charter schools," said Don Griffin, Monument Charter Academy executive director. "Making everyone the same takes away a parent's choice in educating their children."
Elizabeth Berg, principal at James Irwin Charter Elementary School, where state test scores have always been high, says, "If we get low scores it will look like we are doing badly, when we are actually following our own standards and are being more innovative."
She noted that the not all of standards make sense and do not follow their lessons sequentially.
Numerous groups, including Americans for Prosperity, have weighed into the fray insisting that Common Core standards are a "federal overreach" and that sharing data between states could ultimately infringe on the privacy of students.
The standards originated in the National Governor's Association for Best Practices, and many states signed on because of substantial federal Race to the Top education grants. Those adopting Common Core or similar standards received extra points in the application process. Colorado received about $18 million. Six states have refused to sign up, and others have delayed or are talking about delaying implementation.
Some educators and parents are calling for a boycott of the Common Core-based assessment tests. Among them is Sandra Stotsky, professor in the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas. She is said to have developed one of the most stringent set of standards nationally when she was an education commissioner in Massachusetts. She was a member of the consortium that created Common Core and has said that experts weren't heeded.
"Everyone is willing to believe that Common Core standards are rigorous, competitive, internationally bench-marked and research-based. They are not," she told Breitbart.com. Stotsky is scheduled to speak at a Common Core forum at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Beckman Center Colorado Christian University in Lakewood. She is being hosted by Americans for Prosperity.
The backlash is gaining traction in Colorado. State Rep. Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch, has a draft bill that would allow districts to waive most state assessments if they create or purchase those aligned to the district's own adopted standards. It would allow parents in that district to opt their children out of state standardized assessments without penalty.
State Sen. Vicki Marble, R-Fort Collins, plans to sponsor a bill that would delay the already implemented Common Core curriculum for a year and create a task force to look at the viability and cost benefits.
"Colorado's parents deserve time to explore Common Core and decide for ourselves if it is a government program worthy of our children," Marble said in an email.
"The bill is intended to give Colorado the time it needs to explore Common Core in all aspects instead of handing over our children to an experimental education program with no proven track record of success."
But Common Core has been melded with Colorado's new academic standards, so that could be difficult.
Dustin Zvonek, state director of Americans for Prosperity, wrote a letter to Gov. John Hickenlooper and legislators on Jan. 21 that said in part: "We recognize that state leaders of both parties were well-intentioned when they gave Common Core early approval. But so much troubling new information has come to light since then - so many problems are being reported from other Common Core states - that this would be a good time to pause, look at the problems Common Core is creating elsewhere, and revisit the question of whether it's right for Colorado."
Setting a higher bar
But many educators believe Common Core is the answer to the country's academic woes.
U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan defended the standards in a talk to national newspaper editors last year, which is highlighted on the federal department's website. He says much of the angst about Common Core is based on misinformation.
The standards, he said, "set the bar high, they give teachers the space and opportunity to go deep, emphasizing problem solving, analysis and critical thinking, as well as creativity and teamwork. They give teachers room to innovate."
He added that the standards were developed because the "brutal truth" is that there are thousands of schools where as few as 10 percent of students are reading or doing math at grade level, and where less than half of students are graduating.
The Common Core standards also were developed because U.S. students lag far behind many countries in academically.
Colorado educators say the standards will improve how the state's students are taught.
"It's exciting," said Melissa Colsman, the Colorado Department of Education's executive director of teaching and learning.
"Change is always hard, but what we want students to do is think critically and focus on skills that will be more relevant to college and career."
She explained that standards are goals set by the state that outline what students should know at various points in their education. Curriculum is what teachers use to help students meet those standards.
In other words, Common Core is not a lesson plan, but a change in the way students must demonstrate critical thinking and mastery within the curriculum, explains Walt Cooper, superintendent of Cheyenne Mountain School District 12, which consistently has some of the highest scores on state assessment tests.
He notes that for most administrators and teachers, it's not Common Core that is the problem, but the implementation of the state achievement tests associated with it.
"I'm not overly concerned about the standards. The standards are good. If the assessments were not so onerous I don't think the controversy around the standards would be nearly as significant," Cooper said.
Students for the most part must take the new state achievement tests, now called Colorado Measures of Academic Success (CMAS), on computers beginning with science and social studies this spring. Next year, English language arts and math tests also will be taken on computer.
In the past, state assessments were taken with paper and pencil, which is inexpensive and fairly easy to administer.
The state held workshops to bring teachers up to speed on the new standards. Districts, many strapped by years of state budget cuts, must shoulder the expense of any additional teacher development they believe is necessary.
Test results will be more important because teachers and principals, under a new state law, are being evaluated on how well their students do academically.
Districts also must pay for any technology required for the computer tests, including having enough computers, connection speed, headphones, tech support and other technology to give the tests. Paper and pencil versions of the assessments will be available for districts not ready for computer administration, state officials said.
Pilot tests have been conducted in some areas, but districts are spooked about news reports in other states about computer and server crashes in the middle of online tests.
Critics also are concerned that the testing will take away huge chunks of valuable instructional time. Some districts must teach keyboarding techniques to students, which will take time away from classroom instruction.
"It could be mayhem for a month," said Cooper. "We have to set up 150 computers in the high school gym to manage the volume. So how do you carry on a normal school day? It doesn't make any sense."
He also noted that the nature and order of the assessments being proposed would force the district to change the manner in which it sequences math curriculum.
"I'm not willing to do that," Cooper said.
In Colorado, state officials have underlined that the Common Core standards are "a floor not a ceiling," and do not require standardization of teaching and learning, or stifle innovation.
The tests are said to cover less material but with more depth.
Colsman notes that districts and charters can adopt their own standards if they meet or exceed the state standards. "If their standards are high, they should do well on state tests. The concern is if they aren't, they might not do well."
Common Core critics see the effort as treading on autonomy of local schools. They point out that the Colorado constitution says that local school boards will have control of instruction in their districts, and that the Charter School Act of 1993 granted those entities the liberty to choose teaching style and curriculum.
"This federal overreach is hard to take," said Monument Charter Academy's Principal Lis Richard.
Officials at the pre-K-8 school, which has 950 students and is consistently in the top tier in state test scores 15 years running, agrees with the intent of Marble's bill to delay implementation of the standards. The charter school board recently passed a resolution expressing its displeasure with Common Core and asked the state to reconsider.
A number of other schools and districts have passed similar resolutions, including James Irwin Charter schools, Rocky Mountain Classical Academy, the 5,000-student The Classical Academy, Colorado Springs Early Colleges, Douglas County schools, and the 800-student Ridgeview Classical Schools in Fort Collins.
Even those who support Common Core, see problems.
Monument Academy is chartered through Lewis-Palmer School District 38, which has adopted the new standards. But school officials have concerns.
"One of the questions we have is how much testing is needed for accountability. When can we have time for actual instruction?" says Lori Benton, D-38 director of assessments.
D-38 officials are not only aligning the curriculum to the state requirements, but also providing additional content. She notes that local expectations revolve around the district's consistent high scores on state achievement tests.
"The beneficial piece is the comprehensive alignment in all these areas to postsecondary workforce readiness and what students need to be successful in the 21st century," Benton says.
Education reform storm
The standards of Common Core are expected to make academic transitions easier for students who move from state to state.
Paul McCarty, superintendent of rural Hanover School District 28 south of Colorado Springs, said that rural schools often have high numbers of transient students and such uniform standards would benefit them academically. His district is a member of Pikes Peak Board of Cooperative Services (BOCES), an academic co-op that provided initial teacher development classes for the new standards and has helped with technology issues, such as capacity to have many students online at once. The state used Hanover as one of its field tests.
"We finally have it. It took months and we were one of the easier ones," McCarty says.
Changing to Common Core was more difficult because a slew of academic requirements passed by the Colorado Legislature in recent years that have come together for implementation in a perfect academic storm that has school districts scrambling: preschool and kindergarten individual school readiness plans; principal and teacher evaluations partly based on student progress; implementation of the state's new standards, including Common Core; and the resulting new state assessments, as well as tests in math and English language arts called PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers).
Colsman of Colorado Department of Education points out that Colorado has had an easier time adopting Common Core because the state had rigorous changes in the works.
There had been no overhaul in educational content in Colorado since 1996, so in 2008 the state started working on new standards in all academic content areas, focusing on making students career and college ready. Regional meetings were held across the state to get input from a variety of sources including educators, parents, students, businesses and the military.
A task force of 200 educators and other experts spent months designing the new state standards in all content areas, which were given to state and national experts for review. By late 2009, the standards were adopted in math; reading, writing and communicating; science; social studies; comprehensive health and physical education; arts (music visual arts, theater arts and dance); world languages, and English language development for non-English speakers.
Meanwhile, the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices and Council of Chief State School Officers had education experts working on the nationwide Common Cores State Standards.
Colsman explained that because the state was creating its own college- and career-ready standards, it became one of six states to provide feedback to the Common Core developers. "They were watching us because we were ahead of the game, revising all our standards."
The national Common Core State Standards were released in June 2010. The Colorado Department of Education had an independent consultant compare Colorado's new standards and Common Core.
"The analysis showed that what Colorado developed was very strong, but Common Core had some elements that improved on what Colorado had," Colsman explained. "Based on the report we took Common Core's math and English language arts and the Colorado pieces that were important and blended them with our new academic standards." The result, called Colorado Academic Standards, were adopted by the state Board of Education in late 2010. Districts have been transitioning to those standards since that time.
Barbara Frye, an associate professor of literacy education at University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, explains that before Common Core was adopted, academic standards varied widely from state to state. Uniform standards will enable collaboration between states on curriculum and development of educational materials, and help states see how well they are doing compared to others by using a common assessment test to measure student performance.
"In theory they should move teachers to higher standards of teaching and help kids think critically," Frye said. "But like anything in education, will they keep to the original intent and not tell teachers how to teach?
"Also, I fear that the state won't put enough money into teacher development, but might merely buy a curriculum plan and say: 'Here it is.'"
But what is said to be the beauty of Common Core - its standardization - is seen by some as a flaw.
"I'm opposed to Common Core because we should not be following the crowd, but should be focused on creating in Colorado standards that are higher, more agile and responsive to the world that our students will graduate into," said Paul Lundeen, chairman of the Colorado Board of Education, who emphasized he was speaking for himself, not as a board member. (He was not on the board in 2010 when members voted 4-3 to sign on to Common Core standards.)
"The world our children will graduate into is a global world and Common Core was supposed to be bench-marked internationally. But it is not," Lundeen said.
He adds, "Colorado has been tangled in with a test development consortium (PARCC) that is not meeting deadlines and that may be in trouble.
"Common Core is a very complicated subject and I would not be surprised if there are legal test cases coming out of it."
There has also been a perception that students' privacy will be lost as data is shared between states.
One data-sharing system called In Bloom was piloted in Jefferson County schools but was dropped by CDE because it was so controversial. "While it was not tied directly to Common Core, there was a similar concern that it would invite national interests, researchers and such into local control and involve the federal government more deeply in education," Lundeen noted. The project was funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Colorado's new testing software will allow for more in-depth testing, proponents say, and eventually will make results faster and thus more relevant for teachers.
Educators say that scheduling such tests with a dearth of technology among different age groups and different tests is like putting together a jigsaw puzzle without a picture to go by.
"Scheduling is a nightmare," said Berg, principal at James Irwin Charter Elementary.
Like other schools, James Irwin is planning to administer the tests in shifts, because it does not have enough computers for every student. That extension of test times will significantly take away from regular classroom work for days, she says.
For example, in spring 2015 her 250 students will take tests in about two-hour blocks. This will include 12 sessions for fourth- and fifth-graders each and nine sessions for third-graders, over three months.
The school requires its students to write in cursive, believing that penmanship is important to academic success.
"Philosophically we see a need to set the foundation skills in place for many academic reasons, and then eventually learn keyboarding."
But now it must teach student to type at a younger age, which will take at least a day or more out of class schedules.
James Irwin, where 44 percent of the students are impoverished, has consistently been a top scorer in state assessment tests, using a curriculum called Core Knowledge (not to be confused with Common Core) that emphasizes critical thinking, she says.
It plans to stick with that since schools can follow their own chosen timetable on when and how to teach various skills and subjects.
But she believes the state achievement tests may have some Common Core-based content that school leaders do not believe is vital to their students' academic success.
Other charters have similar concerns as publishers come up with curriculum tools for teachers that are based on Common Core standards.
"It's like reading 'Little Red Riding Hood' and being tested on 'Goldilocks.' You won't do as well," said Monument Academy's Principal Lis Richard.
Monument's executive Don Griffin notes that the math tends to be less rigorous than what is taught at the academy. "The algebra they have for 10th grade we teach in seventh. A lot of the classics in literature have been removed and replaced with literature considered inferior."
Richard and Griffin don't think some content is appropriate, such as some first-grade curriculum that has emotionally charged language and sexually explicit material in some passages of texts for older students.
Colsman said that these concerns are based on texts in an appendix attached to the national Common Core standards. "The list of books are examples of the difficulty of texts that students should be able to read. They were not a list of what had to be read," she explained. For example, a teacher might look at "Hamlet" and compare its rigor to what she might want to teach. "Districts choose their own books."
Colsman is optimistic the new standards will be beneficial to Colorado students.
"We want to make sure all children are prepared for every option as they graduate. They are inheriting a world that is very different than even 20 years ago when we first developed standards. We want to make sure it prepares them to be critical thinkers, be flexible and adapt to change, and are able to make good choices for themselves and their future."
Contact Carol McGraw: 636-0371. Twitter @mcgrawatgazette Facebook: Carol McGraw